Sunday, July 10, 2011

Love to wonder

The July issue of 'Physik Journal' (the membership journal of the German Physical Society) has an interview with Jack Steinberger. Steinberger is an experimental particle physicist who in 1988 won the Nobelprize, with Leon Lederman and Melvin Schwartz, for his 1962 discovery of the muon neutrino. He is German born, but his family emigrated to the USA in 1934. Steinberger just celebrated his 90st birthday. What does a physicist do at the age of 90? Here's an excerpt from the interview (by Stefan Jorda):

You still come to your office at CERN every day?

I came by bike until last year, but then I fell and now I take the bus. I get up at five and arrive at half past six.

Every morning?

Not on Saturdays and Sundays. But I have nothing else to do. I read my email, then I go to the arXiv and look at the new papers in astrophysics. On the average, it's about 50 to 100, many of them are very bad. I read the abstracts, this takes one and a half hour, then I print those 5 to 10 that may be of interest to me. I try to understand them during the rest of the day. Then at 4pm I take the bus back home.

Since when are you interested in astrophysics?

In 1992 COBE detected the inhomogeneities in the cosmic microwave background, that was wonderful. It was a big challenge for me, as a particle physicist, to understand it, because one has to know general relativity and hydrodynamics. Back then I was still a little smarter and really tried to learn these things. Today I am interested for example in active galactic nuclei. The processes there are very complicated. I try to keep track, but there are many things I don't understand, and a lot simply is not understood.

(Any awkward English grammar is entirely the fault of my translation.)

Should I be lucky enough to live to the age of 90, that's how I would like to spend my days, following our ongoing exploration and increasing understanding of nature. Okay, maybe I would get up a little later. And on Saturday I'll bake a cake or two because my grand-grand children come for a visit. All nine of them.

"Men love to wonder, and that is the seed of science."
~Ralph Waldo Emerson


  1. Aparently, the love to wonders has its apparent limits, when it goes to cold fusion of Focardi, antigravity experiments of Podkletnov, room temperature of superconductivity of J.F.Prins and/or the dense aether theory of O.Lodge. And the physicists are already paying for their ignorance.

  2. Hi Bee,


    “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

    -Albert Einstein



  3. The cosmic-ray experiment required less than a year from its conception to its conclusion, in the end of the summer of 1948. It showed that the muon's is a three-body decay, probably into an electron and two neutrinos, and helped lay the experimental foundation for the concept of a universal weak interaction.Jack Steinberger

    I guess when one is following developments it is important to see where new turns were taken in the understanding of cosmic particle collisions and their experimental foundations through which phenomenological approach has progressed our views. To understand where we are today in that research.


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  5. The decay distributions of the electron in muon decays have been parameterised using the so-called Michel parameters. The values of these four parameters are predicted unambiguously in the Standard Model of particle physics, thus muon decays represent a good test of the space-time structure of the weak interaction. No deviation from the Standard Model predictions has yet been found.Muon (bold added for emphasis)

    The muon neutrino (ν
    μ) is the second of the three neutrinos. It, along with the muon, forms the second generation of leptons, hence its name muon neutrino. It was first hypothesized by in the early 1940s by several people, and was discovered in 1962 by Leon Lederman, Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger. The discovery was rewarded with the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics.
    Muon neutrino

  6. Love of wonder opens doors to our past?

    Secrets of the Pyramids In a boon for archaeology, particle physicists plan to probe ancient structures for tombs and other hidden chambers. The key to the technology is the muon, a cousin of the electron that rains harmlessly from the sky.

    Of course I was interest in more then just the architectural design, shadows cast by markers, or, the innate of understanding human emotion and mind in expression?:)Our attachment to a point about which "ideas could enter."


  7. One admires the days when a clever person could have a clever idea, build upon it, be grant funded, and discover if it was real. 2011 grant funding requires proof that you will discover nothing - preferably in protracted abstract mathematics - and do it on schedule. Both approaches obtain what they purchase, the latter with much greater frequency and much less utility.

  8. Thanks for this post, Bee. That is what I'd like to be doing when/if I reach the 90's, including the cake.



  9. Hi Bee,

    that's fabulous. I would like to share this life when I should become 90.

    Take care Kay

  10. I'd love to have this life when I'm 50 :)

  11. I read my email, then I go to the arXiv and look at the new papers in astrophysics. On the average, it's about 50 to 100, many of them are very bad. I read the abstracts, this takes one and a half hour, then I print those 5 to 10 that may be of interest to me.

    Wow, the publish-or-perish syndrome has reached epic proportions and turned into a plague, huh? It's no longer like finding a needle in a haystack, more like finding ... no, that's exactly what it is, apparently.

    Well, good for old Jack and good for you, Bee! "Retirement" is a dirty word in our family too.

    And let's not forget Leonhard Euler, who got better and better with age. Incredible guy.

  12. Hi Steven,

    I don't know if the percentage of useless papers has increased, or if it is just the total number of papers that has increased. However, as you know, the arXiv is not peer reviewed and thus the number of useless, bad or plain wrong papers is higher than in old-fashioned peer reviewed journals. There's two sides to every coin. Best,



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